Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

Exclusive: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle

A vast, interconnected network of ancient cities was home to millions more people than previously thought.


3 - 12


Anthropology, Archaeology, Geography, Physical Geography, Social Studies, Ancient Civilizations


Mayan Calakmul Pyramid

Pyramids, like Calakmul, in Campeche, Mexico, are iconic of the Maya. But infrastructure, its roads and irrigation, were the backbone of Maya civilization.

Andy Cannon/Shutterstock
Pyramids, like Calakmul, in Campeche, Mexico, are iconic of the Maya. But infrastructure, its roads and irrigation, were the backbone of Maya civilization.
Leveled by
Selected text level

Researchers are celebrating a major discovery in Maya archaeology. They have found houses, palaces, highways, and other human-made features hidden for centuries in the jungles of northern Guatemala. That is a country in Central America.

To find these ruins, a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR, short for Light Detection And Ranging, was used. A LiDAR system on a satellite or plane uses its lasers to measure distances to Earth. These lights combined with other data recorded by the system create a 3-D image of the ground. With LiDAR, researchers removed the tree canopy from images, revealing the ruins of a vast pre-Columbian civilization. These ruins were far more complex and interconnected than most Maya scholars had thought.

Digital Technology Aids Research
The LiDAR images showed that the size of Maya settlements had been "underestimated," Thomas Garrison said. A New York archaeologist, Garrison uses digital technology in his research.

Garrison is part of a group of researchers who are studying the Maya, led by the PACUNAM Foundation. The Guatemalan nonprofit works to foster scientific research and cultural heritage preservation.

The project mapped more than 2,100 square kilometers (800 square miles) of the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala. The number of LiDAR images is the largest ever obtained for archaeological research.

Sophisticated Cultures
The results suggest that Central America supported an advanced, ancient civilization. Previous studies had compared the Maya civilization to scattered city-states. Current research indicates that the Maya can be compared to sophisticated cultures like those in ancient Greece or China.

LiDAR images revealed highways connecting cities and mining quarries. Complex irrigation supported intensive agriculture, with workers dramatically reshaping the landscape.

The ancient Maya never used wheels or animals to move materials. Yet they were "literally moving mountains," said Marcello Canuto, a National Geographic Explorer and archaeologist in Louisiana, the United States.

"We've had this western conceit that complex civilizations can't thrive in the tropics," Canuto said. "But with the new LiDAR-based evidence from Central America ... and [Cambodia's] Angkor Wat, we now have to consider that complex societies may have formed in the tropics and made their way outward from there."

Inter-Urban Connectivity and Militarization
"LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy," said Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist in Louisiana. Researchers will need 100 years to understand all the data.

Already the survey has yielded insights into the settlement, interurban connectivity and militarization in the Maya Lowlands. At the peak of the Maya classic period, the civilization covered an area about twice the size of England during the same time period. Maya civilization peaked about 1,200 years ago. The Maya also lived much closer together than people did in England.

"Most people had been comfortable with population estimates of around five million," Estrada-Belli said. New data supports the idea that there were actually 10 million to 15 million people in areas controlled by the Maya.

Almost all Maya cities were connected by wide roadways that allowed for heavy traffic and trade. As cities often saw too much or little rain, the flow of water was controlled with canals and reservoirs. Highways were elevated to allow for easy travel even during rainy seasons.

Walls, Ramparts, Terraces and Fortresses
Among the most surprising findings was the large number of walls, ramparts, terraces, and fortresses. "Warfare wasn't only happening toward the end of the civilization," Garrison said. Wars happened over a long time scale and in different parts of the region as the Maya civilization expanded.

The survey also revealed thousands of pits dug by modern-day looters. "Many of these new sites are only new to us; they are not new to looters," said Marianne Hernandez, president of the PACUNAM Foundation.

Protecting the Environment
Environmental deterioration is another concern. Guatemala loses more than 10 percent of its forests annually and habitat loss is increasing along its border with Mexico. Trespassers burn and clear land for agriculture and human settlement.

Researchers want to identify sites to help people understand "the value of protecting these places," Hernandez said.

The survey is the first phase of the PACUNAM LiDAR Initiative, a three-year project. This research will eventually map more than 14,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles) of Guatemala's lowlands. Extending north to the Gulf of Mexico, the lowlands were an important part of pre-Columbian settlements.

"The ambition and the effect of this project is just incredible," Kathryn Reese-Taylor said. Canadian archaeologist and Maya scholar, Reese-Taylor, was not associated with the PACUNAM survey. "After decades of combing through the forests, no archaeologists had stumbled across these sites. More importantly, we never had the big picture that this data set gives us. It really pulls back the veil and helps us see the civilization as the ancient Maya saw it."

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Last Updated

April 19, 2024

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.